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How to ensure that your PC is safe

A few tips for harmonious computing!

Threats to your PC are not a new thing.  For as long as there have been personal computers there have, unfortunately, been people that will seek to exploit your computer for personal gain.

Staying safe online doesn’t need to be difficult though, in this guide I’ll take you through the different types of threat against your computer and then give you some tips on how to protect yourself online.

Let’s start by looking at the different types of threat that you might face.  It’s all too simple to refer to any threat as a “virus”, but often this isn’t the best word to use.  Knowing your enemy is the first step in learning how to make your PC safer to use, so lets get into it.

Viruses

A computer virus can be defined as a self-replicating program that installs and runs on your computer without your knowledge.

All computer viruses are man-made.  In the times before computer networking and the Internet they were often transferred via floppy disk between computers.

Viruses may be intended to either cause harm to your computer or to attempt to gain access to personal information.

Viruses cannot run without human interaction.  A virus will usually be embedded inside an executable file which serves a legitimate purpose.  When you run the file, the virus also runs (without your knowledge) and infects your system.

Worms

A worm is different from a virus in that it doesn’t necessarily require your interaction in order to replicate and distribute itself.  A common method of worms replicating is that it will email itself to all people in the address book of your email program.  The email will read along the lines of “hey, check out this cool program I found!” and attach a copy of the worms executable.

Because the recipient believes the email to be from a trusted source, they unwittingly open the attachment and effect themselves.  Their copy of the worm then sends itself to all of the people in the address book on the new computer.

Worms are usually intended to allow for unaided 3rd party access to your machine.  As well as replicating themselves they will send information to a 3rd party relating to your machine.  The 3rd party may then have enough information to steal your identity or make use of other personal information for financial gain.

Trojans

A Trojan takes its name from the mythological Trojan Horse that the ancient Greeks used to gain entry to the city of Troy.

A Trojan will appear to the user to be a useful piece of software, but once installed will execute its true purpose.  This purpose is usually to cause harm to the host system, or to steal personal information (or allow this to happen via a 3rd party).

Trojans rely on a user willingly installing the software, as apposed to a virus or worm that will self-replicate.

Users are usually tricked into installing a Trojan by misdirection – being led to believe they are installing something they want, so that they will install the infection.

Social Engineering

This attack is becoming more common in the last few years.

It usually involves a phone call or instant messaging conversation to the target, whereupon they are tricked into installing malicious software so that personal information can be gained or systems compromised.

A common version in the UK is an unsolicited phone call from an “IT specialist” who insists that your computer has a virus and the only way to fix it is to install software from their company.

In truth, you have no infection at all and the caller is attempting to get you to install malicious software willingly.

In order to do this, they will ask you to navigate to a specific location on your hard disk and ask if you see a file of a particular name.  In truth, this file will be present on 99% of Windows PCs and is in no way harmful.

But, the caller will tell you that this file indicates the presence of a virus, and the only way to get rid of it is to buy their software.  The software that they ask you to buy is the true threat, and once installed will provide the caller full access to your machine, or with personal information about you.

In fact, some of these calls will even ask you to pay for the solution over the phone via credit card, which conveniently cuts out the need for them to install anything on your computer.

How do I stay safe?

Good question.  With all of these threats out there it can be impossible to ensure that your computer remains safe.

But, there are a few things that you should be doing in order to stay safe.

1) Get yourself a virus checker.  It doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor.  There are many free options available which will do a decent job of protecting your machine.  Check out the “best free software for Windows” article in the sidebar for a few ideas.

2) Don’t download suspect files.  This can be a tricky one, how do you know that a source is legitimate?  The easiest thing to do is to only install software that is available via the original vendors website.  There are several online repositories that are safe to download from as well, such as Sourceforge or Github.  If you’re not sure about a piece of software, try typing the name into a search engine and seeing if anyone mentions it being linked to a threat.

3) Don’t download pirates software.  Come on, you know who you are.  Not only is downloading pirated software illegal, it also carries a risk that you aren’t installing the original version.  The pirated version may appear to work, but it could also contain any number of viruses, worms or Trojans.

4) Ignore any cold calls about your PC.  If you receive a call from anyone proclaiming to know about a threat to your PC, just hang up.  Don’t even entertain the idea.  If you’re feeling in a playful mood, feel free to lead them on, it’ll stop them bothering anyone else.  Just don’t allow them to get you to say or do anything to do with your PC.  Neither should you release any personal information.

These steps don’t make you immune to attack.  Unfortunately we live in an age where people will try and take advantage of your technology for personal gain.  But, by following the steps above you are minimizing the risk to yourself.

Author

Matt

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